MEET THE BOSS: Nokuthula “Nokky” Ndlovu

Information Technology executive, social entrepreneur and founder of Limit Breakers Global Foundation

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“I am an innovator, I look at a problem and think of a solution,” Ndlovu says in reference to a number of tech solutions she has in place for the upskilling of knowledge-based economies in Africa. This includes the commissioning of an app to enable the successful commercialization of car washes in South Africa, which is currently being developed by a group of self-taught coders from the Digital Academy.

FACT FILE

  • Ndlovu was recently named as one of the 40 VIP honourees nominated by the 7% Tribe, a new female focused initiative aimed at helping advance and accelerate gender diversity in the boardroom and beyond.
  • She made it into the top 3 finalists for the 2018 Gauteng Premier Women in Excellence Awards
  • She was invited to be an ambassador and judge of the 2018 Inspiring Fifty Awards. In this role, she was entrusted with advocating for women who are making waves in STEM
  • Passionate about girls in tech, she’s the brains behind Limit Breakers, a non-profit organisation she founded to bridge the gap between education and exposure of young women making indelible mark within the digital sector
  • Through the organisation, she regularly engages with CEOs looking to put in place formal diversity policies aimed at getting more women to enjoy access to emerging market economies
  • She has been invited to unpack some of the tech trends shaping SA township economies at the forthcoming AfricaCom in Cape Town from November 13 to 15

Working in typically male dominated industries sure has its own set of challenges and rewards, and one person who understands that all too well is KwaZulu-Natal born technology executive and social entrepreneur Nokuthula “Nokky” Ndlovu.

The award winning IT specialist, who just as a seed can be thrown on barren land and still continue to germinate, is using her personal experiences – pleasant or not – to teach young women how to be the captain of their own ships, and better still the importance of being able to turn challenges into solutions to find their competitive edge.

What’s more, a look into the recent statics by the Global Gender Gap Report reveals that gender disparity in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sector in South Africa remains a real issue, with only 13% of graduates being women. The percentage of women in IT alone has significantly gone down, from 40% professionals in the 1980s to 21% of IT jobs currently held by women. With the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution, the need to equip the youth with digital skills crucial to its success is no longer an option.

However, a significant number of South African youth from disadvantaged communities and women in particular, have not had the privilege to access these emerging technologies, while a larger percentage of them is yet to fully grasp the impact of technology in it’s entity, be it artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT) and robotics. This is where Limit Breakers, a global foundation that Ndlovu founded comes in.

NOWinSA sat down with the mother of five to find out how the foundation, in line with 2017 report by the World Economic Forum entitled, “The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa” (which states that Africa needs to develop “future ready curriculum that encourages critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence”) is preparing young girls and women in rural and remote areas for these technological disruptions through skills and career development camps, business mentoring programs and policy dialogues.

MEET THE BOSS

Q. How did Limit Breakers come about?

A. It came from my own personal stories and journey of breaking limits; from being a young girl growing up in KwaMashu, to becoming one of the first girls in my area to go to multi racial schools and learning to break down racial and cultural barriers to education. I know that it sounds a bit odd, but just imagine coming from a place where you don’t know anyone and don’t even understand this English properly, yet I had no other option but to make it work. Also in IT, I came quite early when few black people were starting to get exposed to the available opportunities within the sector. I also had to learn quite early how to navigate some of the existing challenges for women to discover my true potential. I realized that there are many people like me who understand that limits are not there to stop them from achieving their dreams – that limits are just avenues for them to break and move on to the next level, and this platform is meant for such like minded female trailblazers, committed to driving positive social changes in their respective fields.

Q. Take us through the process it took you to formalize this foundation?

A. I’ve actually been mentoring and empowering young women since 2008 and it was only until 2016 that I decided to formalize it and put together a board of directors to make it fully operational. Basically we are using technology as a catalyst for change, created to help prepare our youth and girls for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Limit Breakers also provides mentoring programs to high school learners

Q. How important is it to prepare South African youth in emerging technologies?

A. If you look where the world is moving to, we are already in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Learning to work with technologies is no longer for computer software developers only, every single job and profession is actually becoming dependent on technology. Take for an example, the SA township economy. If you have a car wash and want to expand your customer base, it will not be such a hard thing to achieve if you have digital skills, as you’ll be better equipped to know the different media platforms to use to advertise your services. Furthermore, you’ll be able to understand your target market, which is data, and other basics things like how many people in your area own cars and the right methods to use to reach out to them. You’ll be able to come up with effective ways to make sure that people don’t spend hours waiting for their cars to be washed, which is what we call capacity planning. You will know what kind of tools to employ to say ‘ok you can come now, your car is ready’. Technology is about efficiencies and when you have that in place, you can never have missed opportunities. You won’t have say ‘ten cars coming and needing to be serviced at the same time’ only to find yourself unable to deliver on those promises. So technology helps people and companies make better decisions and in the process scale their sales. When our young people don’t know how to use technology to empower themselves besides traditional social media postings, it becomes a missed opportunity, meaning that they will unwittingly continue being consumers, as opposed to creators.

Another example, will be that of a lady who braids hair under the tree in ‘say’ Soweto, and has been looking for ways to reach more people outside of where she resides. So as a company, we are looking to create awareness of how having these digital skills can help empower disadvantaged communities. You can be a student on campus doing ‘eyebrows on fleek’. If you can start using technology to understand the kind of data that you can use to scale your service based business and deliver better services, you’ll be amazed how fast you can be able to achieve your goals. We are living in a digital era where things are moving fast, and if you look at the millennials, they are making use of technology to make their lives easy. The next phase will be for small businesses to understand cost effective ways to make use of payments and move money, and these are just some of the new technologies we are helping accelerate as an organisation.

Q. What are some of your current areas of focus as an organization?

A. Our primary focus remains equipping young people with job ready digital skills, and making sure that we have more women sitting on our boards across various industries in South Africa. We have plenty of well learned black women with degrees that have been disadvantaged for a some time and are not being afforded opportunities to sit on boards. Where there are new policies and decisions being made and implemented, we want our women as Limit Breakers to be there.

In fact, we are currently activating our board in governance training, and mentorship masterclass. If you look around, everybody is talking mentorship, which can simply be a futile exercise without any quantifiable results. I for one have been mentored by Mteto Nyati who is the group CEO of Altron and our mentorship journey didn’t just happen overnight. It’s been four long years and our strategy is plain and simple; we sit down and come up with a set of goals to achieve within a particular period and we cannot see each other until there are clearly defined results.

Q: What are some of the achievements that you are able to look back at with pride as organization?

A. We have a long list of female go-getters in tech spaces but have never been recognised. As an organization, we are extremely proud to have successfully managed to create platforms such as Inspiring 50 Women in Tech, where we’ve been able to expose female tech disrupters and can use this platform to mentor. As we speak, I’m part of the 2019 How Women Who Lead cohort in San Francisco, and as I’ve indicated before, I don’t like being the only woman in South Africa sharing this life changing platforms with equally incredible women from around the world – hence I’m actively looking for three more hard working women within Limit Breakers that I know have been doing great things and have never been recognised for all their hard work. I’ve also received another opportunity with Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship in California where I have been asked to look for women that are managing initiatives for people living below the line of poverty – that woman in an orphanage in the rural area with no infrastructure to properly manage their daily operations and has no idea where to start. We want to put them on various training programs to teach them how to structure their deals, and look for donors so that people don’t take advantage of their work, ask and receive money on their behalf.

So far we have been able to place several youths with IT skills in companies where they continue to learn new skills and develop their careers. We have also managed to refer some to the Digital Academy to learn some coding skills and as we are speaking, they are in the process to finalizing an app to help commercialise car wash businesses.

Q. What are some of the future goals for Limit Breakers?

A. Our goal is to train 10 000 women to sit on boards, as well as prepare our youth and girls for the Fourth Industrial Revolution by equipping them with relevant digital skills where they can create products that can be commercialized. We also want to start preparing our scholars to think of alternative, future skills. If you look at the upcoming expansion of the Durban port which is expected to be around for the next 20 or so years, you’ll understand why we need to get our youth ready for jobs of the future and skills needed to thrive, all the while enabling them to add value close to home. Times are changing and things are moving fast, and in order to advance their careers, young people need to cultivate hip-pocket skills…hence I recently hosted a marinetime career day to highlight careers and skill development opportunities in the marine sector to underprivileged youths. It’s no secret that all careers are facing a high risk of being affected by digital automation and we need to come up with effective solutions to help deal with these changes.

Q. What are some of the disempowering practices you’ve had to deal with as a woman in IT?

A. Men can be bullies at times and often want to give us the softer things, as opposed to placing us in challenging positions that require us to unleash the beasts in us. In IT for an example, they often want to put us in service desks, where we take telesales calls, even when we are already well equipped to start building new computer servers. Sometimes when you are too ‘feminine’ you can get ostracized for not being like one of the boys. As career women and mothers, we want enabling work environments, and thankfully most organizations are starting to recognize that we can work from home and be as productive at the same time. There are also big disparities in earnings between men and women and that’s one the things we are challenging as Limit Breakers. In fact, we will hosting a series of masterclasses next year to teach women how to negotiate a pay rise or promotion.

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